Ants Are Us

Read Time:
2m 38sec

A Cultural History of ­Myrmecology.

By Charlotte Sleigh. Johns Hopkins Univ. Press. 302 pp. $­55

My favorite 1950s horror film is Them!, the one in which giant ants come out of the atomic desert to terrorize Los Angeles. The premise is scientifically untenable, but it seems convincing enough for 94 minutes: Ants have our organizational skills, but none of our mercy. In any fair competition, they could beat us and, as is vividly depicted in the film, strip the meat from our bones. The movie’s subtext about females with too much power somehow adds to its creepy appeal even as it offends my ­politics.

An entertainment like Them! feels rich in meaning because we think we see truths about human nature in ant societies. Ants’ social lives are so similar to ours that we fall into comparison and analogy. In Six Legs Better, cultural critic and science historian Charlotte Sleigh reveals just how irresistible this metaphor making has been even for those who, theoretically, should know better. That myrmecology, the study of ants, has never enjoyed the status of a distinct discipline has much to do with scientists’ own ­obsessions.

One of Sleigh’s central characters, the Swiss psychiatrist and early myrmecologist Auguste Forel (1848–1931), saw in ants’ cooperative colonies affirmation of his own beliefs about the virtues of socialism. Then there’s Harvard entomologist W. M. Wheeler (1865–1937), who, like Freud, saw unhealthy mothering as a corrupting influence. Perhaps that’s why he homed in on ­trophallaxis—­the mutual feeding of larvae and their caretakers by ­regurgitation—­as the sort of behavior that is both the basis of society and a symptom of ­neurosis.

More recently, sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson has stressed simple cues such as pheromones as the media of ­communication—­in ants and humans. His model of organisms building complicated behavior out of simple cues, which he propounded beginning in the 1950s, owed something to Cold War thinking. The U.S. military funded a key 1953 conference on animal behavior, encouraging myrmecologists to seek the practical applications of ants. This is just one instance in which myrmecology influenced broader currents of thought. The seemingly minor discipline cast a long shadow, particularly through cybernetics, the study of communication principles common to machines and living ­things.

At every turn, Sleigh’s inquiry leads back to intelligence and instinct, the opposing underlying principles often invoked to explain complex ant behavior. Those terms, used in bewilderingly contradictory ways by scientists in different dis­ci­plines, often obscure more than they explain. Some, for example, saw “instinct” as a compilation of learned behaviors that could be inherited; others used it as a synonym for “drive.”

Six Legs Better is full of ­far-­flung connections. Sleigh looks into such surprising matters as the poetry of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, the criticism of I. A. Richards, movements for international languages such as Basic English, popular science writing, disciplinary boundaries in academe, and the dystopias of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. Her digressions are not, as is too often the case in the work of lesser scholars, random samples of her latest reading, but necessary stops on a rich and rewarding ­journey.

—Gordon Grice

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